Where Logic Meets Love

You Are Not Everyone: Taking Stock of Our Assumptions

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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You Are Not Everyone: Taking Stock of Our Assumptions | Faith Permeating Life
Assumptions grate on me -- as much as I'm guilty of them myself.

In addition to designing surveys for my job, I take a lot of online surveys, as a way to make (a very small amount of) money on the side. Usually you're required to answer every question on the page, and more than once I've had to either quit taking a survey in the middle or lie because there was no way to honestly answer a poorly written question. For example:
  • Which of the following brands of alcohol have you consumed in the past 3 months? (Um... I don't drink.)
  • Which of these companies provides your landline service at home? (We don't have a landline.)
  • What is your monthly mortgage payment? (We live in an apartment)
And on and on.

This is why "N/A" and "Other" options were invented, people.

Yesterday at work I was transcribing the comments on feedback forms from a recent event. Although the event organizers had tried to cut down on paper use by confining all information to a single handout, several people still complained that the information should have been distributed electronically rather than "wasting" paper.

"We all have smartphones," one respondent explained.

Really? Really? Are you sure that every single one of the other event attendees owns a smartphone?

Let me answer that for you: They don't. Because I was there. And I don't own a smartphone.

I am forever beating down these kind of assumptions in work meetings. As the youngest person in my office, I have to straddle the gap between my coworkers and those "young'ns" -- the students who attend our college.

"Have the students do it on their phones in class. All those kids have smartphones."

"We should do this through Facebook. Everyone's on Facebook."

"If you want all students to know about it, you have to 'tweet' it. They're all on Twitter all the time."

Yes, of course there are plenty of students who sit in class looking at Facebook and Twitter on their smartphones. But that doesn't make it true for everyone. Rarely is there a benefit to making decisions based on these kind of sweeping assumptions.

In light of this, I thought I would list the many truths I try to keep in mind about just how much diversity there is, even within America. I still forget many of these, and I'm sure there are other truths I've missed that you will add in comments!
  • Not everyone is straight.
  • Not everyone believes in God.
  • Not everyone who believes in God is Christian.
  • Not everyone celebrates holidays.
  • Not everyone speaks English.
  • Not everyone can sum up their race or ethnicity with a single checkbox.
  • Not everyone has siblings who are the same race.
  • Not everyone wants to be married.
  • Not everyone wants to have children.
  • Not everyone had a happy childhood.
  • Not everyone has sex before marriage.
  • Not everyone grew up with their biological parents.
  • Not everyone grew up with two parents.
  • Not everyone grew up with two opposite-sex parents.
  • Not everyone can hear.
  • Not everyone can see.
  • Not everyone has two legs and two arms.
  • Not everyone can climb stairs.
  • Not everyone was born in the right-gendered body.
  • Not everyone has a job or the ability to have one.
  • Not everyone has access to adequate education.
  • Not everyone can read.
  • Not everyone knows how to use a computer.
  • Not everyone owns a computer.
  • Not everyone owns a TV.
  • Not everyone eats meat.
  • Not everyone drinks alcohol.
  • Not everyone got drunk in college.
  • Not everyone went to college or wants to go to college.

This is not about being "politically correct" or whether or not you're going to offend someone. This is just a reminder to take stock of your own assumptions. When I look over this list, I "know" all of these things... but I still catch myself making decisions on the assumption that everyone has the same abilities, preferences, and experiences that I do.

Even after years of talking about and working for gay rights, I still have to keep myself from reinforcing hetero-normativity by teasing some little boy about whether he's got a "girlfriend."

Even after having debilitating mono for 8 months, I still have to fight the judgmental voice in my head when someone takes the elevator up one floor.

I want to know: What assumptions do others make that don't apply to you? What mistaken assumptions do you find yourself making most often? There's no way to stop making assumptions overnight, but I think the more we remind each other of our differences, the easier it becomes to think in ways that encompass diversity.


  1. I certainly relate to your thoughts on surveys! As a data manager, though, I often run into problems caused by interviewers (very few of our questionnaires are self-administered; most are given by trained interviewers) using the "other" option when the response actually fits one of the categories or using "not applicable" when the question does apply. Recoding "other" to the correct code is just tedious, but a question marked "not applicable" when it should have been asked usually has to be recoded to "missing" because I can't guess what the answer would have been; both are frustrating. My point is, sometimes these options are left off to avoid these problems.

    One assumption that's been bugging me lately is that, because I am a mother, the appropriate title to place before my last name is "Mrs." I am happily unmarried, but even if I were married I'd rather be called "Ms." than use a title that sounds like my marital status is the most important thing about me. Seeing as I have a different last name from my child, and many mothers of first-graders these days are not currently married, I don't understand why teachers keep calling me "Mrs."

    At least they don't call me "Mrs. Hislastname." Here in Pittsburgh, it's pretty common even for married couples to have different last names, so I rarely encounter that assumption. In small-town Oklahoma where I grew up, it's another story.

  2. I want to add that one of the most interesting things I've ever done at work is to build a constructed variable called Family Structure Detailed Version indicating who is heading the participant's household. I wound up with 37 codes, and they do not even cover every detail! (For example, living with a grandmother and living with an aunt both get coded "single female relative not mother.")

    One assumption that ought to be questioned these days is: If the parents of a child live in the same house, they are a couple. Our data from back in the 1990s includes two families in which parents divorced but kept living together; one of them had mom's boyfriend living there after a while. Now that our participants are adults, many of them have had a period of continuing to live with their child's mother after the romantic relationship died, in order to raise the child together. I have a friend who is in this situation now. It has its downsides, but it might be better for the kid than joint custody and having two homes--I wonder if there's any research on that yet?

  3. @'Becca
    I completely agree about the surveys--it drives me nuts when people write in Other responses that are clearly already response options for the question. I definitely don't think every question needs an N/A or Other, but I do think survey designers have to carefully think through whether everyone will be able to answer the question. I most prefer branching if it's not overly complex--e.g., ask me first whether I drank any alcohol in the past 3 months, and then if I say yes, ask me which of the following brands I drank in the past 3 months. If you're going to only ask the latter question, there has to be an N/A option or I can't honestly complete the survey.

    I haven't experienced people using "Mrs." with me, even though I am married. It sounds like you're mostly experiencing that in conjunction with school? I wonder if that's related to how teachers are addressed--I remember teachers always being Miss or Mrs., with the exception of our music teacher who made a big deal about how she was a Ms. because she was divorced. I would still agree that that doesn't mean "Mrs." should be the default title of everyone with a child in school.

  4. @'Becca
    That reminds me of this infographic from the NY Times about the percentage of households made up of various combinations of people. It definitely doesn't discriminate very finely (e.g., you can add a child without saying what the child's relationship is to the adult or adults), but it's fascinating to explore nonetheless.

    That's a good point about the parents who live together without being in a romantic relationship. That's why I'm a proponent of conversations like this--knowing the "exceptions" makes it more likely I'll catch myself making assumptions because I can say, "Well, how would someone answer/interpret this if they are in X situation?" If I don't know X situation actually exists, I'm unlikely to ask that question, and thus risk marginalizing people (as I feel marginalized when given a question that assumes I drink alcohol, for example).


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